The cat arrived a few days after my father disappeared. The pouring rain weighed down my already overloaded backpack as I walked home from the bus stop after school. I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t notice the bedraggled black cat at the top of the cul-de-sac until I had almost tripped over him. I bent down to stroke him and then, of course, he followed me home. Since there was no question of leaving him outside in that weather, I let him in. I called out for Dad just in case he had returned but there was no answer.
As if he knew the way, the cat went straight for the kitchen. Guessing that he must be hungry and thirsty, I filled a bowl with water and set it down for him. Then, after digging around in the cupboards, I retrieved a can of buried kippers.
While I watched him devour the fish, I noticed that he was collarless and on the skinny side. I didn’t have the heart to throw him out, even though Mum wouldn’t be happy. Unlike Dad, she had no time at all for animals. Nevertheless, much to my surprise, she hardly put up a fight when I said that I wanted to keep the cat for good.
“I want nothing to do with it,” she had said. “You’ll have to do everything yourself.”
Maybe she wanted to spare my feelings, though I think she was just too tired to resist. She did refuse to drive me to the pet shop, however. I had to improvise with an old paint tray and newspaper for the night. After dinner she asked me what I was going to call him.
“Edward,” I replied.
She didn’t say anything; she didn’t have to because disapproval was written all over her face. Edward is my father’s middle name.
Mother was convinced that Dad had run out on us, leaving behind only debts, worry and heartache. I knew that whatever his faults he would never do that me. She said that it was time I faced the facts. I was old enough to see things for what they were.
I didn’t tell her that Dad had already returned in a different form. It was pointless; she would have carted me down to the psychiatrist straight away. There, she would explain to the good doctor, the history of mental illness in the family (Dad’s side) and how the recent distressing events had caused me to have a breakdown.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when I realized beyond a doubt that my father had returned as the black cat, but this awareness had steadily grown in me day by day. The very fact that Edward made his appearance so soon after Dad was last seen could, I suppose, be dismissed as mere coincidence, but I shared with my father the conviction that there was no such thing. Besides, it made perfect sense in a way. My father always had a certain cat-like quality about him. He certainly seemed happier in his new form. All the seemingly contradictory traits of his personality were absolutely natural in a cat. As a human, his idleness, punctuated with sudden bursts of concentrated activity would draw comment. Yet this was the very essence of the feline nature. The friendly warmth that could turn in a moment into arrogant aloofness confused and alienated people, but was thought of as charming in a pet. Undoubtedly it was a little mad, but then all cats are mad.
I had soon fattened him up, bought him a fancy collar and generally just spoilt him. Mother, true to her word, had nothing to do with him at all. She had, in fact, taken an active dislike to him, shooing him away every time he came near. I bore the reproach for the cat hairs on the couch.
Mother feared and therefore hated animals. And yet, when I was younger, Dad had insisted on keeping pets in the house, mainly cats but also dogs, despite her disapproval. The presence of the cat in the house undoubtedly served as an unpleasant reminder. Any mention of Dad had become strictly verboten, but I wasn’t about to re-christen Edward. Every time I called out his name, I could see her heart harden a little more against me.
As the year wore on, my mother and I spoke a little less each day. Really, we had one subject to discuss but as we already knew and disagreed with the other’s opinion, we kept silent on the matter. Edward was always waiting for me at the front door when I arrived home. First thing, I would feed him and then hurriedly complete the chores Mother had set for me before going to my room to do my homework. Edward always followed and would curl up in my red moon chair while I sat at my desk. If I was stuck on a particularly difficult question, I would ask him. He would look at me knowingly in the
manner of all cats, but of course, remained silent. I missed Dad’s explanations even if
he would digress and give lengthy lectures on all kinds of unrelated subjects. Almost everything was twisted to fit into his own eccentric worldview. You would always have to ask again what the answer was. Now, he could only appear wise.
I would stay in my room, reading or listening to music until I had to eat dinner or to cook, if it was my turn. Mother insisted that we eat at the table. Out of politeness, I would ask about her day at work, to which she always replied in monosyllables. Then she would ask me about school and I’d respond in kind. After that she would proceed to critique my housework or my attitude, particularly what she referred to as my adolescent sullenness. At first, I rose to the bait, but soon I realized that these were arguments I had no hope of winning. While all this was going on, Edward kept hidden in a corner so as not to antagonize Mother. For if she caught sight of him, she would scream at me to get that bloody cat out.
After doing the dishes, I would say goodnight to Mother, invariably ensconced in her chair, watching TV while nursing a gin and tonic. Some nights she never made it to bed. Edward would reappear and be waiting at my bedroom door. However, he always stayed outside until I was changed for bed before coming in to settle down in his chair. I would say ‘goodnight’ and ‘love you’ and although he never responded, his mere presence was answer enough.
Then, just as I had gotten used to the rather strange state of affairs that existed in our household, Mother brought home a new boyfriend and everything changed.
She had obviously sought out the complete opposite of Dad. Rather than handsome, vain, unpredictable, broke, quick-tempered and fond of a good laugh, the new boyfriend was plain, stable, comfortably well off, even-keeled and serious, or to neatly sum up in a word: dull. Dull as dishwater and a governmental accountant to boot. I am still at a loss to understand the attraction. There was nothing appealing about his thinning, mousey brown hair, that narrow, pinched face, the thick glasses perched precariously on an unremarkable nose.
Even the fact —or perhaps even more because of it— that he didn’t drink, smoke, swear or gamble made me wary. Dad always said that you are never to trust a man without a vice. Dad had also told me to beware of men with small feet and the new boyfriend had, even for a man of such moderate stature, uncommonly dainty feet.
And interestingly, the new boyfriend was immediately at odds with Edward. In fact, he seemed physically afraid of the cat. Edward would arch his back and hiss and the boyfriend would in turn flinch and draw back. Although this obviously afforded me some amusement, I wished Edward would behave, as I was concerned as to the new boyfriend’s plans. His symmetrical centre parting and the crease lines around his mouth were suggestive of a cruel vindictive nature. I’d sometimes catch him staring though those ugly bifocals at Edward while he slept. Seeing that queasy, unpleasant smile stretch his thin lips, I would involuntarily shiver. The fact was that I did not know what was to become of Dad and me if they were to carry on.
The worst of it was that Mother assumed a triumphant air. As if the fact that she had a new boyfriend vindicated her and enabled her to behave like a petty tyrant. Before she had been harsh but after that she became merciless. The number of chores multiplied daily. She criticized me constantly. The ban on mentioning my father was lifted but only to denigrate him and myself in turn.
We had a fierce argument about the boyfriend. She warned me that I had better start being nice to him. I told her that I had no intention of being nice to him; he wasn’t my father, after all. She said that it was a pity he wasn’t because then I might be a decent human being. Instead, I was the daughter of a worthless bastard and as a result, what could you expect but a crazy ungrateful bitch? I slapped her face, hard, and ran upstairs to my bedroom where I locked myself and Edward in. Mother banged on the door calling me horrible names and promising to bring down all kinds of punishment upon my head. Eventually she gave up, but it was hours before I was able to sleep. All the while, I talked quietly to Edward of my fears.
A new day brought a change of tactics from Mother, now suddenly all conciliatory. I sensed that something was up and had my suspicions confirmed when she announced that we would be going to the boyfriend’s house for dinner and to spend the night. I started to object, but Mother stopped me and said that it wasn’t up to debate.She said she expected me to be at my very best, as tonight was an important night. I agreed but asked about Edward. This question shattered her pretence of calm.
“The cat will be fine for one night!” she snapped. “If only you would show the same consideration for me as that cat then we wouldn’t have these ridiculous problems.”
I didn’t bother to respond to such a stupid comment. Rather, I said goodbye and began my walk to the bus stop.
All day long I was in a state of dread over the forthcoming dinner. I had been to the boyfriend’s ostentatious pile before. It was utterly detestable. Mother’s cooing and sighing over the absurd antiques and useless collections of figurines and curiosities only heightened my distaste for the place. I was sorely tempted to move the ornaments on the shelves a fraction of an inch or knock over a drink on the coffee table, anything to shatter the illusion of order that the boyfriend obviously went to great lengths to present to the world.
Mother was already getting prepared for the evening when I arrived home from school. She had left work early especially for the occasion. Anxious to avoid confrontation, I ignored the stinging remark that I should dress proper for once. The evening was going to be long and difficult enough as it was without starting off on the wrong foot. So like a dutiful daughter, I put on my knee length black skirt (the dressier of the two that I owned), a white blouse and the strands of pearl Mother bought me for my last birthday. After studying myself in the mirror I sighed. I looked like Mother going on a job interview. By the disdain in Edward’s eyes as he turned away, it was obvious that he didn’t approve either. There was nothing for it, however.
In the car, I kept silent and just watched the lights of the passing cars be consumed by the darkness in the wing mirror. Mother, of course, was harping on her favorite theme —her only theme— of me being my father’s daughter and consequently, a constant source of disappointment.
The boyfriend was eagerly awaiting our arrival and had prepared a veritable feast (his very words). As I nibbled smoked salmon canapés, I nervously wondered what could possibly be the occasion? The unbearable sense of foreboding grew after we sat down to dinner. I thought it odd that Mother was sticking to Coke, as she was never one to turn down a glass of wine. She and the boyfriend gazed at each other with eyes shining in happiness. A happiness I neither shared nor understood. After the main course, the boyfriend said that they had some news that they wanted to share with me.
‘Oh, really, what is it,’ I answered, trying unsuccessfully to sound enthused. I abandoned all pretense as their revealed their announcement.
Mother had just found out she was pregnant. We were to move into the new boyfriend’s dreadful home, by the end of the month. “For the space,” she explained.
Inconceivably, Mother thought I would be delighted to have a new baby brother or sister. I felt on the verge of throwing up. Gathering myself, I asked, “Can I bring Edward?”
They looked at me in pity now that they were assured of victory, as they shook their heads and said no.
“Unfortunately, cats can’t possibly be around newborns,” Mother said. “But we’ll try to make sure he goes to a good home, a more suitable place.”
The subject was dropped. After that they talked of their bold, future plans between themselves —a future in which it seemed I was a mere afterthought— until I excused myself. I made my way to the alien bedroom which would soon be mine. Here I was to spend the night.
I couldn’t settle; all I could think was that I was soon to be separated from Dad for a second and final time. When I did finally sleep, I dreamt of green eyes glowing accusingly in the absolute darkness.
(Special thanks to Dr. M. Sorick for editorial advice and support).